Evaluating Stats - Rushing Yards And What They Mean

Rushing yards are something that are less in vogue, it seems, in the NFL these days than it is in college football. That's because so many NFL teams have quarterbacks and receivers who are good enough to execute the so-called "pro-style" offense, which includes the "west coast" version of that attack, and short passes can often substitute for handoffs.

In evaluating the effectiveness of a team's running game, I don’t like to look at the total rushing yards as much as the yards per carry. I’ve seen teams run the ball 50 times for 145 yards, but what’s that, when you look at it? Less than three yards a carry? I’d rather see a team run it for 95 yards, if they only had to run 19 times to do it. That way I know they’re making their running plays count. Remember, three yards and a cloud of dust only gets you to fourth-and-1.

However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there was a flip side to that. Jon Gruden used to talk about this when he was the coach in Tampa Bay. He ran the west coast offense, but did not want the opponent to be over-playing for the pass, so he would run the ball. Even though his teams did not often average more than three yards an attempt, it was effective in the overall scheme of things, because he was able to keep the other team "honest." He wanted them to know that he was fully prepared to run it in any situation.

Customarily, teams that run the ball well win games. I would consider rushing yards to be meaningful yards, because that indicates a team can establish some kind of supremacy at the line of scrimmage, and when it’s time to kill the clock and protect the lead at the end of the game, the teams that run well are the teams that are able to do it.

By the way, be very careful when you look at rushing statistics as an indicator of a team’s ability to run the football, at least in college football. NCAA Statistics count sacks against a team’s rushing total, so what you want to do is look at the rushing yards MINUS the yards lost by sacks, and also subtract the number of sacks from the total of rushing attempts.


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